FBI: Alaskans being targeted by con artists

Advance-fee schemes charge up-front fees for loans that will never materialize

Posted: Monday, December 15, 2003

That money-promising man from Nigeria still isn't your friend.

FBI Special Agent Eric Gonzalez, working in Anchorage, said he continues to hear from Alaskans who have received unsolicited e-mail or faxes from people claiming to be of Nigerian decent and asking for personal financial information in schemes to recover family fortunes.

Gonzalez said his office regularly talks to people who complain that the promises of financial reward go unfulfilled.

"(The scam) has gained folklore status, and yet people still bite into it," Gonzalez said.

Enough Alaskans are wired to the Internet that they don't have to go to the big city to be targeted by the con artists who come out in greater numbers during the holiday season, he added.

Bob Anderson, manager of First Bank's Mendenhall Branch, said one of his customers recently was targeted in a more subtle scam.

The woman advertised locally, in the paper and on the Internet, that she had a car for sale for about $2,000. A deal was arranged over e-mail.

The purchaser sent a cashier's check for $5,500 to cover shipping and other costs. He wanted return payment for the difference, Anderson said.

"The good thing about it was that our client didn't release any funds," Anderson said.

Although most people treat cashier's checks like cash, the seller waited for this one to clear. It didn't, turning out to be a well-crafted forgery, Anderson said.

Gonzalez said such Internet overpayment schemes are becoming more common and also include online auctions.

The forgeries look good even to professionals and include microscopic points, Anderson said. Detecting counterfeit cashier's checks can be very difficult.

People need to be especially careful about not giving out their bank account information over the telephone.

"That's something they would never do with their Visa number," he added.

Gonzalez said cyberbanking fraud is on the rise, with criminals claiming to represent legitimate financial institutions and asking to update account information.

In another variation, criminals set up bogus banking Web sites that are called by people making minor mistakes in the Web addresses for legitimate banking sites, he said.

Advance-fee schemes charge up-front fees to secure loans that never materialize, Gonzalez added. The victims often are poor credit risks. The money sources often are confidential and the loan terms often are at or below market rate.

"If it sounds too get to be true, it probably is," Gonzalez said.

Most of the scams aren't new, either. But new technology breathes new life into them.

People don't have to give credit card numbers to telemarketers or bank account numbers to unsolicited e-mailers to be victims of fraud, Gonzalez said. Failing to closely guard Social Security numbers or information mailed by credit card companies can get people in trouble.

"Identity theft cases are almost a daily occurrence for us," Gonzalez said. Many Alaskans are having their identities stolen and used by people to commit crimes in the rest of country.

Victims may not even know they have had their identity stolen so that others can do illegal things in their name, Gonzalez said.

In some cases, unauthorized charges show up on accounts, but often stolen identities are used to establish accounts people don't even know about, destroying an otherwise good credit rating, he said.

The first sign of identity theft may be credit denied, he said.

"We recommend people check their credit report at least twice a year."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

FBI tips on how to avoid being a victim

Alaskans should carefully guard personal and financial information to protect themselves from costly scams and security theft.

The FBI in Anchorage advised people to:

• Never give personal information via the telephone, mail or Internet unless you initiated the contact.

• Store information in a safe place.

• Shred credit card receipts and old statements before throwing them away, using scissors if a shredder isn't available.

• Protect personal identification numbers - PINs - and passwords and make sure no one can watch you using them in public.

• Carry only the identification you need.

• Remove your name from mailing lists for pre-approved credit lines and telemarketers.

• Check your credit report at least twice a year.

• Protect your Social Security number and make sure your driver's license number is different.

• Close all unused credit card or bank accounts.

• Guard your mail from theft, and contact creditors or service providers is expected bills don't arrive. Such mail can be used by identity thieves.

• Check account statements carefully for unauthorized charges.

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